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A Study on the Leaders of Technologically Innovative Schools
by Guest Columnist Rachelle R. Wolosoff, Ed. D., 05/02/2008

The Role of Schools

If we accept that one of the roles of schools is to prepare students so that they may lead successful and productive adult lives, then the institution of public schooling must become innovative, particularly in the use and integration of technology, if they are to help their students meet the demands of globalization. Leadership is a crucial element of successful reform. Therefore, it is important to study leadership in technologically innovative schools. According to Education Week, Technology Counts, a state survey performed by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center (2007), the percent of students with computers in the classroom in the United States is 49.5 percent. The number of students per instructional computer is 3.8, with the number of students per high-speed Internet connected computer at 3.7. Forty-eight states have a technology plan, 23 states have established a virtual school and 23 states have offered computer-based assessments (Technology Counts, 2007). Despite all the purchasing of computers and the decreased student to computer ratio of 3.8, Cuban (2001), in his book, Oversold & Underused: Computers in the Classroom, tells us teaching and learning have not changed. Schools in America may not be making optimal use of these new tools.

Teachers have been infrequent and limited users of the new technologies for classroom instruction. If anything, in the midst of the swift spread of computers and the Internet to all facets of American life, e-learning in public schools has turned out to be word processing and Internet searches. As important supplements as these have become to many teachers' repertoires, they are far from the project-based teaching and learning that some techno-promoters have sought. Teachers at all levels of schooling have used the new technology basically to continue what they have always done: communicate with parents and administrators, prepare syllabi and lectures, record grades, and assign research papers. These unintended effects must be disappointing to those who advocate more computers in schools. (p. 178).

There are many people who actually are more comfortable with the status quo and do not want the practice of education transformed. For these and others, the terms education and innovation are seen as contradictions. They see most schools operating in the same way for decades. It is understandable how innovation is difficult to achieve in a school environment where tradition has prevailed, since change is often looked upon as something that is undesirable. Often, parents want their children to attend schools that are similar to what they were accustomed to when they grew up. Tyack and Cuban (1995) describe this as the "grammar of schooling". The familiar structure reassures parents that it is a "real school" (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). Schools are limited by the context of the schooling organization itself. Consequently, schools are faced with a limitation on how innovative they can become, based in part on the expectations of parents. These traditional notions of schooling are often glorified and defended. This sort of loyalty to a system, which may no longer work for our children, is counterproductive.

This Study

There are, however, an enlightened group of public school educators and leaders who are not afraid of technological innovation and transformation within the system. It was my belief that the experiences of these individuals needed to be documented in a qualitative study. This is what I have done. My research highlights the work of three leaders whose schools have demonstrated technological innovation. Case study was used and is an ideal approach for obtaining information on leaders and their experiences because through interviews, group e-mails, online questionnaires, observation, and archival data, their stories can be told and their goals and outcomes illuminated. This study illuminates the point that a driving force behind innovation is a commitment to a sense of community and a shared vision for all stakeholders, all this fueled by personal passion. Innovation can be looked at as a state of mind rather than a tangible product. For example, school leaders who have strong beliefs and philosophies, which promote creative thinking, community and relationship building, and risk taking are more apt to have schools that are innovative. Traditional schools might have similar hardware and software configurations but that alone is not innovation. Mindsets and pedagogies of the school leaders contribute to the different results in schools. Leaders play a critical role in creating schools that meet the demands of our globally competitive society. It is a leadership challenge that is embraced by the leaders in my study. Therefore, based on these leaders' experiences, schools/districts can foster their leadership qualities by providing a safe environment for all stakeholders, both adults and children, where risk taking is instilled and encouraged, and where mistakes are used for reflection, learning and improvement. Community and relationship building must be highly valued amongst the stakeholders both inside and outside the four walls of the school building. Higher education administration programs can foster these leadership qualities by focusing on coursework which includes an emphasis on risk taking and on the importance of good pedagogy, including the project based approach. Scenario building is a strategy which might be embedded in such leadership coursework. This would give education administration students the ability to collaboratively engage in conversations about problems, various alternatives, and implications.

Discussion

I believe that good leaders are good leaders and that the leaders in my study are good leaders, with or without regard to technology. Leaders in general can learn from these leaders and their attributes. The project-based approach is the glue between these three leaders and their schools. They all identify strongly with this approach, which allows the teachers greater room for collaboration. The eclectic backgrounds and risk taking beliefs held by these leaders are what catapult them to be visionary leaders who challenge the status quo. I have been surprised by the reaction of the leaders to my questions involving technology and innovation. I expected more emphasis on technology in the conversations I had with them. In fact, they were clear that technology does not drive these schools. It is their leadership and focus on their facilitation of learning, on pedagogy, that truly drives them. Technology cannot be thought of as an end to itself. It is a tool, but unless put in a context of learning, leadership, and community building, it can be just window dressing without meaningful and ongoing value. The leaders used the phrase "technology as a tool" frequently to describe its use to improve the lives and learning of children and teachers. I believe they used the word "tool" as an expediency to more conveniently describe their point. In fact, it is clear to me that technology is much greater than a tool, much more important than a ruler, for example. Tools are limited. The hammer is a tool but there are only a few things for which a hammer can be used. An Internet connected computer, on the other hand, is the spice which makes the recipe of learning and teaching come alive. The leaders of technologically innovative schools are the master chefs who know how to utilize that spice in meaningful ways. It is a tool that can be put to use to enhance project-based learning. It is really a facilitator of better learning and teaching. Technology is less a tool and more, what I call, "a virtual us, without limitations". It should act as the transparent oil which greases the wheels of project -based learning. It should be subtle in its inclusion while being powerful in its impact, ubiquitous in its presence, and infinite in its potential.


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